Five (In)Famous Case Studies
To answer these questions, we’ll start by looking at five major bank runs in U.S. history – each from a different time period and under different macroeconomic and microeconomic constraints. Apart from SVB, each bank in this list set the record for the largest bank failure in U.S. history at the time.
The Bank of the United States (1930)
What was it? The Bank of the United States was the largest commercial bank in the U.S. by deposits and customers in 1930. At the time of its failure, the bank held $268M in deposits (~$5bn today) and served over 440,000 customers, who were primarily working-class immigrants living in New York City. The bank run on the Bank of United States’ Bronx branch is often cited as the trigger that initiated the collapse of the banking system during the Great Depression.
Why did it fail? After undergoing rapid expansion in the late 1920’s fueled by a handful of mergers, the Bank of the United States faced a handful of legal difficulties. In conjunction, a series of smaller bank runs in the southeast of the U.S. as well as the collapse of the stock market set the stage for an atmosphere of fear. According to historians, when a Bronx businessman was unable to sell his Bank of United States stock back to a bank manager in the Bronx branch, the businessman spread a (false) rumor that the bank could not afford to repurchase the stock. The rumor spread like wildfire, prompting a massive bank run with over 20,000 customers queued to withdraw funds at the Bronx branch alone. The following day, the bank was temporarily closed, and then permanently shuttered when support financing and a merger offer failed to materialize. Ultimately, the bank was illiquid, not insolvent – and depositors eventually received 93 cents on the dollar for their deposits when all was said and done.
What was the timeline? On the morning of December 10th, 1930, a Bronx businessman spread the rumor that the Bank of the United States lacked liquidity. That afternoon, over 20,000 individuals lined up to withdraw from the Bronx branch. The next day, December 11th, the bank directors closed the bank in anticipation of a massive run and gave the New York Superintendent of Banks control over its assets. When a merger was unable to be negotiated, the Bank of the United States was suspended on December 13th, 1930.
Franklin National Bank (1974)
What was it? Franklin National Bank was a bank based in Long Island, New York that failed in 1974. At the time of failure, the bank held ~$3.7bn in assets (worth $21.bn today).
Why did it fail? It is impossible to do justice to the lurid failure of Franklin National Bank in a single paragraph. The long version of the story involves the mafia, the free masons, the Nixon administration, drug cartels, a cyanide pill, and an incredible number of broken laws. In short, however, an extremely shady individual named Michele Sindona purchased a controlling stake in Franklin and, through a series of poor and often illegal decisions was responsible for many losses at the bank, prompting a bank run and ultimately insolvency.
What was the timeline? In early May 1974, Franklin National Bank disclosed to the public significant losses in foreign exchange markets in excess of $60M. Over the next 14 days, deposits declined by ~$325M, or ~11% of total deposits. To cover withdrawals, the bank borrowed over $1bn from the Federal Reserve Bank in May. However, deposit outflows continued for the next several months, reaching a ~50% decline from peak at the start of September 1974. On October 9th, 1974, Franklin National Bank was declared insolvent.
Continental Illinois (1984)
What was it? Continental Illinois is the fifth largest bank to fail in U.S. history. Continental Illinois was a commercial bank headquartered in Chicago that was the seventh largest commercial bank in the U.S at its peak. At the time of its failure, the bank held $40bn in assets (worth $116bn today).
Why did it fail? Following a decade of rapid growth in the 1970’s, Continental Illinois made a series of risky investments that proved its downfall. Due to an old regulation that prevented banks from expanding beyond state lines, banks often purchased loans from other banks across states. In this case, Continental Illinois purchased $1bn in risky energy loans from Penn Square Bank, which was based in Oklahoma. Continental Illinois also owned risky assets in several developing countries. Soon after, Penn Square Bank failed, and there was an international debt crisis spurred by Mexico’s default. The bank attempted to rightsize its balance sheet, but fear sparked a bank run on the bank’s deposits, the majority of which were uninsured. It’s also worth noting that ~40% of Continental Illinois’ deposits were foreign leading up to the failure – and historians believe these creditors were more likely to withdraw relative to domestic creditors.
What was the timeline? Continental Illinois’ troubles came to light in a poorly received earnings release in April 1982. This release, combined with the failure of Penn Square Bank (July) and Mexico’s default (August), resulted in a slew of credit and stock downgrades. In late April 1984 (two years later), the bank publicly announced an increase in nonperforming loans (i.e., a loan that is unlikely to be repaid in full). On May 7th, 1984, rumors arose that Continental Illinois would fail or would be forced to seek a merger. A 9-day bank run commenced on May 10th, 1984 in which 30% of Continental Illinois’ existing funding fled, and was replaced by a significant amount of federal assistance from the FDIC as well as support from a coalition of private banks. The government effectively owned and ran Continental Illinois until it finally disposed of its shares in 1991, and the bank was purchased by BofA in 1994.
Washington Mutual (2008)
What was it? Today, Washington Mutual (aka WaMu) is remembered as the largest bank failure in U.S. history – both on a nominal and inflation-adjusted basis. Prior to its collapse in 2008, WaMu was the sixth largest bank and the largest Savings and Loan Association in the U.S. Unlike a traditional commercial bank, Savings and Loan Associations primarily focus on residential mortgages (in addition to other traditional banking services). At time of failure, WaMu held $307bn in assets (equivalent to ~$422bn today).
Why did it fail? To some extent, the failure is self-explanatory – it was 2008 and WaMu specialized in residential mortgages. But to be more specific, WaMu had significant exposures to subprime mortgages because they catered to higher risk consumers and approved variable rate loans despite a lack of provable income and assets. Additionally, WaMu had a lot of business in California (where housing fared worse than average) and had rapidly expanded its physical presence in the years leading to the crash. When housing prices fell, WaMu wrote down billions in defaulted mortgages and struggled to raise cash, which was exacerbated by the collapse of the secondary market for mortgage-backed securities. The final nail in the coffin was a bank run led by depositors, who withdrew $16.7bn over the course of ten days. The FDIC determined that WaMu lacked sufficient funds and seized the bank. JPM eventually stepped in and assumed WaMu’s assets.
What was the timeline? Housing prices peaked in early 2006. By December 2007, average home values had declined 6.5% from the prior high. The same month, WaMu wrote down its home lending unit by $1.6bn, cut 6% of its workforce, and closed ~50% of its home-loan offices. In 2008, the Bear Sterns takeover was negotiated in March and IndyMac Bank failed in July. In the first two weeks of September, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taken over by the government, Merill Lynch was sold to BofA amidst a liquidity crisis, and Lehman declared bankruptcy. The latter, which occurred on September 15th, 2008, kickstarted the ten-day long bank run on WaMu, culminating in its failure. Most of those deposit withdrawals were retrieved via internet-based electronic banking and wire transfer.
Silicon Valley Bank (2023)
What was it? SVB was a commercial bank founded in 1983 in Santa Clara, California that specialized in banking technology companies. As of 2021, SVB claimed to bank ~50% of all US venture-backed startups and had relationships with a meaningful number of venture capital firms. At the time of its failure, SVB held ~$209bn in assets, positioning it as the third largest bank failure in U.S. history as of writing.
Why did it fail? Prior to the technology downturn that started in November 2021, SVB had both grown rapidly and catered to a specific clientele. Like any bank, SVB invested client deposits in return-producing securities, like bonds. When the federal reserve rapidly raised interest rates to combat inflation, the current value of those bonds declined. Why? Because if you want to sell a bond that pays a low interest rate relative to market, you will need to sell that bond at a discount to convince someone to buy it. That doesn’t really matter if you are planning to hold the bond until maturity. Unfortunately, SVB’s customer deposits were dwindling because startups were not raising more capital and were continuing to burn through existing cash. To cover a decline in deposits, SVB sold securities from their portfolio for a $2bn loss and would undertake a share sale to raise further cash. Instead of rightsizing their balance sheet, SVB instead spooked the market – its share price collapsed, and existing customers rushed to pull out their deposits. Soon after, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation took possession of SVB.
What was the timeline? In mid-2021, a surge in inflation impacted the global economy. On March 16th, 2022, the Federal Open Market Committee enacted the first of nine rate hikes, increasing the federal funds rate from 0.25% to 5.25% as of writing. By December 31st, 2022, SVB had unrealized losses of ~$15bn for securities held to maturity. On March 8th, 2023, SVB announced it had sold $21bn of securities at a ~$2bn loss and was further planning to raise capital from a stock sale. On March 9th, SVB stock declined 60% and customers ran on the bank, initiating ~$42bn in withdrawals. On March 10th, regulators took control of SVB, shutting it down.